For the first time in decades, the Air Force is preparing to overhaul its fighter pilot training enterprise. The existing system isn’t broken, but new teaching technology and the coming T-7A trainer present opportunities to develop even better fighter pilots in less time and at potentially lower cost.
The new concept of operations is called “Rebuilding the Forge,” or “Reforge” for short, signed out June 2 by former Air Combat Command chief Gen. James “Mike” Holmes. By consolidating training phases and omitting a change of station, it would shorten the time it takes to grow a flight lead by 12 to 18 months. Freshly minted basic pilots will also be more seasoned in fighter activities before they ever get to their weapon system, and will be able to progress faster once there.
Readiness would be boosted by teaching with the new T-7A Red Hawk rather than front-line combat jets. This would reduce the wear on combat jets and leave more combat capacity for real-world contingencies. Doing this with just the F-22 could yield 60 percent more operational hours for Raptors, and save three to five times the cost per flying hour versus the Raptor.
“We’re trying to … see if we could create more capacity without spending more money,” Holmes said in a June 22 livestreaming event with the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “We can take some of that training-coded iron and turn it into combat-coded iron.” The airplanes and pilots, he noted, are “already paid for.”
ACC is working with Air Education and Training Command (AETC) to develop the concept further. AETC owns almost 230 fighters, but Maj. Gen. Craig D. Wills, 19th Air Force commander, said it’s too soon to say whether any of those aircraft would ultimately pass back to ACC for front-line service or whether AETC could hand off some of its bases.
“I don’t see that Reforge is going to result in a big shift of iron out of AETC right away, but I think it’s probably safe to say we have a lot more work to do … before we know exactly how all this is going to pan out,” Wills said. AETC has 134 F-16s and 92 F-35s. Training F-22s were consolidated with other operational F-22 squadrons after Hurricane Michael leveled Tyndall AFB, Fla., in 2018, and the National Guard trains F-15 pilots.
It also isn’t clear if AETC will still provide the instructor pilots.
“We think … those folks that are going to T-7s at AETC bases would probably be best trained by AETC initially,” Wills said. “You could see a scenario where we would provide the initial checkout—basic proficiency in the airplane—and then they’d move on to take part in the Reforge piece of it.”
Under Reforge, fighter pilots will be combat-qualified for more of their initial hitch than today.
“The day you get your wings, you owe the Air Force 10 years,” said Lt. Col. Luke Schneider, one of the authors of the Reforge CONOPS (Concepts of Operations). But much of that time is spent training. “We are looking at giving the Air Force back 10 percent or greater of that commitment as a combat-qualified aviator.”
Reforge itself has been more than two years in the making. It mirrors AETC’s Advanced Pilot Training Experiment and the two commands have compared notes in a series of meetings. The ideas align well.
The arrival of the T-7A will be a watershed in terms of capability, Wills said, and both commands recognized changes were needed to “get this right.” So while the two commands are “not quite joined at the hip,” Wills noted, they are “perfectly in step.”
The T-7A is far more advanced than the T-38 it’s succeeding. It handles more like a modern fighter, it has a modern cockpit, it’s more forgiving, and it has on-board capability to simulate many kinds of sensors and weapons. It can emulate practically everything a fighter does except the flare of a rocket motor as a missile flies away. Time in the T-7 will generally be far better spent than in the T-38, eliminating the need for specialized training required just to fly the T-38 istelf. In that airplane, because of its quirks, “we spend a lot of time teaching guys not to die,” Schneider said.
Once they’re finished with the T-38, students have to spend extra time in modern fighters to really learn to employ them. After completing basic flight school and then Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF), pilots have to spend months at their Flying Training Unit (FTU) in their combat airplane, learning both its unique handling and how to employ its various combat systems
Wills said the Air Force tends to fly new airplanes as it does the ones they replace, regardless of how much a leap in capability they represent. In the early days of the F-22, he noted, pilots would say “we flew it just like the F-15C.” Over time, pilots learned to exploit the Raptor’s full power.
The T-7A is a major leap forward, however. “We’ve flown the T-38 for 61 years,” Wills said. “The last thing we want to do is take a state-of-the-art airplane like the T-7 and then fly it exactly like the T-38.”
ACC and AETC are already exploiting virtual reality, advanced simulation, and artificial intelligence (AI) to let students learn at their own pace and master certain skills without leaving the ground. In pilot training today, Wills said, students “fly” in video gaming rigs that can be installed in their rooms, enabling them to practice missions as many times as needed until they get them right.
Reforge will build on that. AI will monitor student progress, seeing where they need more work and recommending refreshers where necessary. Homework can also be recorded, so human instructors can critique student performance and offer specific tips on problem areas. The AI will also be able to recognize when students have mastered coursework early, allowing them to move on without unnecessary repetition, further accelerating their progress.
Wills said students tend to be “rusty” both when they report to Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals and later at their Flight Training Unit. Eliminating the IFF change of station saves time and money on cross-country moves and reduces the need for refresher training.
According to the CONOPS, students will go from basic flight school to a 12-month Initial Tactical Training program, or ITT, where they’ll fly the T-7A. “Compared to the existing timeline, ITT-trained aviators will only need half the time to complete fighter transition to be qualified in a major weapon system airplane,” said David L. Timm, the other Reforge author.
Once pilots complete ITT, they will have “the requisite experience to attend the FTU transition course instead of the FTU basic course.” Overall, “the expected result is the fighter aviator becoming a mission-ready flight lead 12 to 18 months earlier than the current process,” the CONOPS asserts.
According to a notional timeline in the CONOPS, students selected for the fighter track will start getting fighter-specific instruction about five months before receiving their wings. They’ll then attend the ITT course for one year’s instruction, staying at the same base when they move on to the FTU for four months to become mission-qualified. After that, they can become a flight lead in eight months, or less, depending on their proficiency.
Implementing the new scheme depends on the successful and timely fielding of the T-7A. Planners intend to complete a proof-of-concept program, called RFX, meant to train a cadre of Reforge instructor pilots using eight leased, off-the-shelf advanced trainers. The candidates include the Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50 or the Leonardo M-346, both of which lost out to the T-7A when Boeing was awarded the trainer contract in September 2018. Holmes said the leased jets are expected to be available in the summer of 2021.
According to Wills, it’s too soon to know if there would be any changes in the T-7A engineering and manufacturing development program, or if more than the planned 351 aircraft are required.
As for Boeing, a spokesman said the T-7A was “designed with growth and flexibility in mind,” and if additional capabilities are needed, “we are well-positioned to support our customers’ evolving requirements.”
At ACC, Schneider said the command is doing “everything we can to not impact [engineering and manufacturing development] and the delivery of T-7s to AETC.”
The RFX is seen as a five-year effort to shake out the ideas in Reforge, make course corrections, and put a system in place to take advantage of the T-7A on the first day it’s available. The initial plan was to simply lease the T-50, but there was interest from other companies, Holmes said, and “it is in our interest to see who can come in at an affordable price.” Leasing trainers is an unplanned expense, and it’s still possible such a program may prove unaffordable.
Another unknown is whether more T-7As may be needed to make Reforge work. “That’s for the RFX to determine,” Timm said. The T-7A contract already gives the Air Force the option to acquire another 100 aircraft beyond the 351 on order.
The Air Force’s ongoing pilot shortage could be eased through Reforge. The shortage has three components: production (the number of pilots coming through the pipeline); absorption (USAF’s ability to convert new pilots into seasoned combat assets); and retention (to “keep them happy so they don’t bail out and go to airlines,” as Schneider said).
Reforge “will attack the first two” by accelerating throughput to train more pilots in less time. Absorption is a harder problem.
New pilots coming out of fighter training today have less air time and experience when they arrive at their combat units “compared to the ones 15-20 years ago,” Schneider said. Until a pilot makes flight lead, “the next assignment options are extremely limited,” Schneider said. “That causes frustration,” and Reforge should help alleviate that, in part by leveraging concepts developed in Red Flag exercises. Reforge will mimic Red Flag, where records show that pilots’ survivability rises sharply after 10 realistic missions.
With Reforge, “they get to combat units already experienced, they become flight leads faster. They are more useful.”
Four iterations of the Reforge CONOPS were briefed to Holmes before he was satisfied with the plan. Holmes and his successor, Gen. Mark D. Kelly, briefed it to the other four-stars and former Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein earlier this year.
Building On AETC Progress
The Reforge concept builds on what AETC is doing with undergraduate pilot training (UPT). The current iteration is called UPT 2.5, and it identifies fighter-bound pilots sooner and gives them a more tailored training program.
Wills explained that when the T-7 arrives in 2024, “If you get your wings in UPT 2.5, you’ll get a checkout in the T-7 … and you’re qualified to fly the airplane.”
By the time students get to a field unit, they will have “a couple of years or 250 hours” of flying time, Wills noted. “Essentially … a two-year-long introduction on how to operate as a fighter pilot.” Although the CONOPS eliminates the interim assignment at another base for the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course, he added, “it’s not a matter of skipping IFF, per se.”
Further changes are likely, and new technologies will make it possible to further rebalance the amount of training required in the air versus in simulators, Wills added. For example, within a couple of years, most, if not all, graduate-level air mobility training will take place in simulators.
For now, at least, Reforge is for fighter pilots only; no such program currently exists for bomber pilots, who will also move from the T-38 training to the T-7 when it is ready.
Timm noted that Congress still must be sold on the Reforge idea. Speeding up training will raise alarm bells on Capitol Hill over concern that USAF could be cutting corners and putting new pilots at risk. The idea, though, is to exploit new technology to improve training and eliminate time and expense that no longer contribute to pilot training or safety.
Undergraduate pilot training “has been the same way for the past six decades,” Timm said. “We know it works. [But] it’s become unaffordable to use front-line fighters to train fighter pilots.”
Reforge is an opportunity to avoid “burning out our force structure” while training “for a near-peer adversary.” And by teaching skills sooner and more efficiently, “you’re able to save 50 percent of the training days.”
In terms of combat life on an airplane, Timm noted: 60 percent of today’s F-22 sorties are allocated to training in field training units. With a limited number of the stealthy jets available, and replacements still only concepts, saving those hours extends the life and combat-availability of the Air Force’s premiere air superiority fighter.
Financial savings may also accrue, but that was never the objective. ACC did not disclose anticipated savings and said any current estimates must still be proven through real-world experience.
“The value is apparent,” Schneider said. “We’re not looking at cutting hours. We want to repurpose them. If I cut hours, I don’t increase readiness beyond what it is right now. … We want to give operational units much more time to focus on the threat, versus how to take off, land, and do patterns.”
Wills emphasized that, for now, training remains unchanged. “The worst thing we can do right now … is give everybody the idea that we’re going to shake up the entire program,” he said. “That’s not the plan.” Rather, the idea is to ask: “How do you do things smarter … and get it done in a way that all the stakeholders are happy with it? … There are a lot of stakeholders in this, and it’s critical we bring everybody along.”